The Localism Act (2011) made provision for the creation of directly elected mayors, subject to confirmatory referenda, in England’s largest cities. Referenda in those cities will take place in May 2012. Where the outcome is a ‘yes’ vote, elections will take place on 15th November 2012. In response to this development The University of Warwick has funded a Warwick Commission into Elected Mayors and City Leadership. In turn, the Commission is funding a doctoral researcher to undertake a sequence of interviews with mayors, their officers and related experts, across the world, and so far that has involved 38 interviews in Australia, England, Canada and New Zealand as well as group discussions and a short ethnographical study. The Commission has set itself the following key question: “What is the role of elected mayors in providing strategic leadership to cities?”
The purpose of the Warwick Commission on Elected Mayors and City Leadership is not to judge whether directly elected Mayors are the right system of democratic governance, as this will be a matter for electors. Rather, the Commission sets out the background to this development in terms of the history of local government, considers why elected mayors have risen to the surface of the political agenda now, and explores what existing mayors and their officers, and opponents, consider the advantages and disadvantages of directly elected mayors; in effect, the optimal scale and structure for the offices of elected mayor if one or more city votes to adopt the system. The Commission is strictly party and candidate neutral and has been open to any stakeholder with an interest in the subject of elected mayors, city leadership and governance.
There are probably two critical points in the development of local government in the UK. First, it has progressed incrementally with little strategic direction except in so far as the central government has been forced at various points in time to address the byzantine local structures and processes that have embodied the consequences of this reactive incrementalism – the ‘Saxon heritage’: as long as ‘the locals’ kept their house in order then London was content to ignore them – only when disease, squalor or riot infringed upon the metropolis did Whitehall decide to ‘do something’ about the ‘locals’. Second, the state has often attempted to realise, but seldom achieved, its aim of centralising control and its own authority for almost a thousand years – since the Norman invasion of 1066.
The history of local government in the UK, then, can be described as one rooted in these two dichotomous traditions: the centralising fetish of the state – the veritable ‘Norman Yoke’ – bolted on to the decentralised chaos of the Anglo-Saxon heritage. The history of local government has consistently reproduced the centripetal forces of the centre versus the centrifugal forces of the locale and, by and large, England has ended up with one of the most centralised governments in the world. In turn, that seems to have demobilised the electorate in many localities and one of the underlying thrusts of the Localism agenda of the government is to reinvigorate the local body politic by giving power away to elected mayors. Precisely what that power might look like remains unclear at this point in the debate and that, in itself, may undermine the possibilities of some cities voting for a mayor.
The data which the Commission has accumulated suggests that elected mayors may provide a viable alternative for invigorating some locales, especially at a time when the forces of globalisation are setting city against city across the globe in their competition for capital, labour and knowledge. In some cities an elected mayor may not be necessary because they have already constructed a significant identity and are vigorously and strategically led, but there are many other places that might look to elected mayors to signal a radical change of governance and political direction.
Directly elected mayors offer the possibility of greater visibility, accountability and coordinative leadership as well as re-enchanting the body politic, and much of this derives from their relative independence from party discipline through their direct mandate and through their four year term. But they also hold the dangers of electing mayors whose popularity obscures their inadequacy in leading their communities. This remains the danger of all forms of democracy and elected mayors are just a different form of the democratic system that links accountability to the electorate rather than the council.
Ultimately directly elected mayors may be a way of answering the most important question at the heart of governance: what is the purpose of politics? If politics is about how we mediate our individual and collective conflicts then we had better pay some attention to reinvigorating the body-politic: politics is too important to be left to politicians.